One of my new friends here has joked that there should be a video game called ‘Driving in Malawi’. You would spend your time dodging goats and chickens, and on either side of the road would be smoking trenches, the kind that replace footpaths, and double up as a means of waste disposal.
Malawi is incredible. This was a country that I couldn’t even begin to imagine, that barely gets a mention in histories of the continent. 694 pages of the tiny-fonted tome that is ‘The Scramble for Africa’ sees one passing acknowledgement, on page 678.
Since I arrived in the 17th least developed country in the world, two weeks after handing in my master’s thesis and completely alone, everyone has been so helpful. A presidential candidate took me to lunch, and then helped me move my luggage between accommodations, a broadcast journalist offered to share sources, and is bringing me to see his newsroom. Malawi’s biggest music festival, ‘City of Stars’, offered me a press pass. I am particularly excited to see the ‘Malawi Mouse Boys’, an eight-piece band that divides their time between singing gospel music, and catching and barbequing mice, which they then sell to people on kebab sticks.
I’m talking to everyone, and learning everything from cultural niceties to political secrets. In Malawi “you’re looking really fat today” is a compliment, and calling something “Chinese” is an insult. Meanwhile, the country is still reeling from last week’s assassination attempt on government budget director Paul Mphwiyo, and fingers are pointing in all directions.
Politics dominates the discussion in all sectors of society, and the word ‘corruption’ permeates. When invisible, it is a noun to be resigned to, an immeasurable drain on development. When visible, it is a matter for huge condemnation.
The presidential election is scheduled for next May. 2014 will also mark the twentieth anniversary of Malawi becoming a multi-party state, and seven candidates so far have declared their intention to run. Campaigning resembles a sport. Each party has specific colours that are donned by political rally attendees. Meanwhile, those seeking office often compete in benevolence, handing out kwacha, maize or other gifts to their supporters.
One of my favourite days here was spent with the guys who work in the souvenir market. They noted that visitors to Malawi always come with a specific agenda. If they’re researchers, they have previously decided who exactly they’ll interview, and how they expect their data to develop. If they’re NGOs, they have targeted who they want to help. Very few foreigners stop to appreciate the country in more nuance.
They taught me to play bao, a Malawian game that’s similar to checkers, played on a carved board with ebony seeds. One of them said that his dad is a tribal chief and if I’d like to stay in Malawi for longer he can provide me with some land, as long as I promise to work hard and cultivate it. Another asked would I be his girlfriend, and said if we get married he promises only to take another wife if I prove unable to bear children. Then a group of them sat around me and asked whether I could describe snow to them. “Can you touch it?” “Does it hurt?” “Does it fall inside your house?”
My Simon Cumbers project was proposed as an antithesis to the traditional news story. It’s predicated on the fact that coverage of Africa focuses on the tragic – the wars, the famines, the crises. I’m profiling the lives of four women, one year after the first Malawian female president came to power. Before I came here I said I was going to look for the humour in people’s lives, their views on being from a developing country, the ways that they spend their free time. But I don’t have to search for humour here, there is so much laughter. And I don’t have to pry to discover people’s views on Malawi, there is so much self-awareness, so much discussion and debate. Malawians both respect and critique NGOs and donors, like they understand and critique themselves. And there are a vast number of people who suggest that if their country is to properly move forward, change must come from the inside, from the people of Malawi rather than those who aim to help them.
I met with Second Secretary James Sherry at the Irish embassy in Lilongwe, and mentioned how it impressed me that while less than 20% of Malawians attend secondary school, everyone is informed about politics. He seemed surprised at my naivety, at how I didn’t understand that apathy is reserved for the affluent. For many here in Malawi, politics is a matter of life or death. It’s whether they will eat, it’s whether they can earn a living, it’s whether they have medicine in their hospitals. “Therefore,” he told me, “of course they have opinions on it”.
And yet this country remains out of the textbooks. The joke that a video game should be set here was memorable, because the humour lay in the fact that it will never be made. When and if we see Malawi, we see flies on children’s faces, when and if we hear of it, we hear of Westerners providing solace to people who can’t take care of themselves. Personally, it’s only on this trip that I’m discovering the lives behind the stories, circumventing the stereotypes of a country, and appreciating its nuance.
Sally is tweeting about her trip at @sallyhayd